In 1979, the BBC launched a new political discussion show called Question Time – presented by Sir Robin Day. Somehow, a friend of mine got tickets to be in the audience and so, aged 16, we went along to the studio. Robin Day was elsewhere that day and the programme was hosted by the veteran Canadian broadcaster Bob McKenzie.
At that time, I’d started to get involved in left-wing politics and had developed a curious and unconvincing cockney accent – ditching the cut-glass posh voice my mother had instilled in me. I also still had the Irish Republican convictions that my Irish Republican grandmother had indoctrinated me with from an early age. I later became a lot more nuanced on that issue.
During the show, I stuck my hand up and got to make a point about the vote being taken away from Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom. This was a typical piece of Margaret Thatcher spite aimed at Irish people.
The British Nationality Act (passed in 1981) was being discussed in parliament and she was clearly keen on trimming the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. Subsequent analysis has suggested she thought they all voted Labour and so needed to be disenfranchised. Being half-Irish – I was not impressed.
Anyway, with my newly found cockney accent, I made my contribution and was roundly put down by Bob McKenzie. Should mention that the poor man died a year later. I hope the stress caused by my angry teenage words didn’t contribute to his demise!
(This blog post includes some great photos of the 1990 Poll Tax demo taken by an old friend of mine – mostly at the end)
I was 16 in 1979 when Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I then experienced an eleven-year bad dream from which I woke up in 1990 as she departed. Her reign – and I think it deserves to be called that – seemed like a play in three acts.
There was the years of crisis in her first term from 1979 to 1983. In the steep economic recession from 79 to 81, even The Economist (not an enemy of Thatcher by any means) thought there could be a Labour government by 1983. Within her own party, disgruntled “wets” (the old aristocratic one-nation wing of the Tories) conspired feverishly to oust her.
Then along came the Falklands war with Argentina and an end to the recession – plus the Labour Party was in a mess with an unconvincing leader. Even though the Tories were losing local councils and didn’t enjoy majority support among the public, they won enough votes to sail to victory in 1983.
And so comes the middle act of the Thatcher play. Confident enough to provoke the miners into a year-long strike, which she won largely through divisions on the trade union side. Thatcher, it must be said, was lucky in her enemies.
The 1986 Westland Affair was a case in point. Westland Helicopters was the last UK manufacturer of helicopters. The Defence minister Michael Heseltine wanted to ensure its future by integrating the company into a European consortium. Thatcher, never very pro-European, was quite happy for it to be snapped up by an American rival, Sikorsky.
The ensuing bust-up between her and Heseltine nearly brought the government down. Again, luck intervened. Even though Heseltine resigned his post and stormed out of Number 10 (the prime minister’s residence), the Labour leader – Neil Kinnock – failed to deliver the killer blow in the House of Commons. And so on she went.
I remember her third election victory in 1987. Some pundits were predicting a slimmer majority. But I’d been canvassing for the Labour Party and knew she was set for a thumping majority. So – with a heavy heart – I placed a £3 bet at the bookies on her getting a 97 to 102 majority at odds of 22/1.
And sure enough, she got a 102 set majority and I picked up £66. I suppose that’s almost shorting your own side but I was thoroughly disillusioned by that stage. Any comfort was welcome!
The last act of this tragedy I saw as her descent into madness. Her language and appearance became so imperious that it was mocked on the very popular Spitting Image satire show. And then she decided to implement the Poll Tax – replacing a property based local tax with one on every citizen. Like all her tax changes – it redistributed wealth upwards – and was as popular as a lead balloon.
Many resisted paying the tax. I freelanced an article to The Guardian at the time about how people were being chased for the tax and the threat of back payments being taken from pension savings.
In March 1990, I went with a journalist friend on a poll tax demonstration in Trafalgar Square. There was a march feeding into the square from Whitehall but no sign of trouble. That was until the riot police and small groups of anarchists decided to do what they’d really set their hearts on doing all along – having a massive bust up.
While Labour Party and trade union speakers addressed the crowd, the first missiles soared overhead. And in a short period of time, we found ourselves in a scene of total chaos.
Police tactics involved kettling us into the square while the rioters set light to a nearby building being renovated and threw pieces of kerbstone. Then riot police on horseback charged past the South African embassy trampling somebody underfoot. We huddled on the steps of St Martin’s church wondering what the hell to do next. What became clear was that the many thousands of us were now regarded as de facto criminals.
Somehow, eventually, we ran into a restaurant where the customers were huddled against the back wall. An American women shrieked: “Sterling is ruined after this”. Not really a huge concern at the time, I must admit. And then a stroppy waiter insisted we buy a meal!!
And so – in one of the more surreal moments of my life – I ended up eating spaghetti bolognese at a first floor window of the restaurant watching rioters overturn an Aston Martin on St Martin’s Lane. And all the way up the road, looters smashed shop windows including Macari’s instruments.
I later heard somebody was arrested on Regent Street with a brand new saxophone!
In the summer of 1981, I got a place at Liverpool University. In July of the same year, the Toxteth district of that city exploded in riots over unemployment and a breakdown in community-policy relations. At the same time – Prince Charles married Princes Diana in front of three generations of the Royal Family.
The front page of the newspaper featured here sums up the mad contradictions of that long hot summer. Britain was convulsed with rioting in every major city – particularly Liverpool and London. While at the same time, millions tuned in to the “fairy tale” wedding of Charles and Diana – which ended up being more of a horror story.
This was the massively divided Britain of the early 80s. Half the country north of the Watford gap took the brunt of a two-year economic recession that decimated manufacturing industry. While the south-east – I think it’s fair to say – coasted through. At least that was the impression I got at the time.
Something snapped that summer. Youth jobless rates had gone through the roof. The government was bent on a monetarist economic policy that had turned a recession into a disaster. And there’s no getting away from the polarising affect that Margaret Thatcher had on people. She was either idolised or vilified. There really wasn’t much by way of a middle ground.
What this newspaper front page reports is the sole death that occurred during the Liverpool riots – in the Toxteth area of the city. It’s a very sad story. A disabled guy, David Moore, unwisely decided to take a closer look at the rioting near where he lived and was crushed under the wheels of a police van.
As Charles and Diana said “I do”, David died in hospital.
When I turned up to university, I was totally unaware that my halls of residence had just been used as a police dormitory for officers drafted in from all over the country to quell Toxteth. I only found that out years later.